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Cities, obsessed with electric cars, overlook simple solutions at climate summit

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Walking and biking will reduce emissions faster

Electric vehicles were prioritized at the Global Action Climate Summit over lower-emission solutions like walking, biking, and transit.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

California Governor Jerry Brown kicked off the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last week with two jaw-dropping announcements. Not only would California run on 100 percent clean energy within 25 years, but the entire state would achieve carbon-neutrality by 2045, eliminating or offsetting all emissions from manufacturing, agriculture, and the increasing problem of transportation.

Brown’s announcement was the most ambitious climate policy ever proposed—and a total surprise. But it was, in many ways, the perfect opening for a summit focused on audacious local action, launched around the idea that national entities have been too slow to mobilize. His executive order set the tone for the summit, and new partnerships and expanded commitments were dispatched from every level of government and every sector of industry, proposing to hit even more aggressive targets.

In attendance were many of the 400-plus U.S. “climate mayors,” who began a series of collective actions pledging to honor the Paris agreement after the federal government backed out last year. It’s working: C40, a global coalition of mayors, says that cities have been more effective at fulfilling commitments than countries, releasing a report at the California summit that showed emissions have peaked in 27 of its member cities.

Over the past year, however, it has become increasingly clear that for U.S. mayors, the greatest climate challenge will be addressing how Americans get around—transportation is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S.

Yet transportation was not a major focus of the summit’s agenda. Transportation was not even listed as one of the “key challenge” areas of the summit, although it is increasing global emissions at a faster rate than any other sector.

It was a recurring theme across the summit’s programming. Instead of simple, actionable, inclusive solutions that focused on strengthening communities while reducing emissions, much of the summit felt like TED Talks of powerful white men getting mad at Trump—Harrison Ford, Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore—sandwiched between high-tech, high-investment proposals.

Ford’s speech snagged more headlines than an announcement from C40 that a total of 26 cities worldwide had committed to designating a majority of their streets ”fossil-fuel free” by 2030.

At times, the summit felt more like an auto show. The event concluded with a cross-country electric vehicle road trip. There was the hashtag #CitiesDriveElectric. The only main stage session completely dedicated to transportation was like a series of car-centric infomercials: Hydrogen fuel-cell SUVs! Charging stations! Batteries!

Especially when compared to their international counterparts, U.S. mayors still are still relying on electric vehicle promises instead of making other dramatic shifts needed in local transportation.

For comparison, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Paris Mayor Anne Hildago used the summit’s visibility to announce zero-emission transportation goals before each city hosts the Olympics (Paris in 2024, LA in 2028).

Garcetti’s plan includes electrifying the city’s fleet, buying electric buses, and pledging that 20 to 45 percent of cars on LA streets will be electric vehicles within 10 years.

Hildago returned to a Paris where the entire city was car-free for the day, part of a major effort underway to convert freeways to parks, rapidly expand the bike network, triple the number of people biking, and eliminate gas-powered cars in the city by 2020.

Advocacy groups at the summit protested other U.S. mayors whose on-the-ground transportation commitments did not mirror their climate proclamations.

Divestment—the movement for cities and states to stop investing in oil companies—was one of the big topics of the summit, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to double the city’s green investments in a speech.

Yet critics rightfully argue that New York’s plan to stop supporting these companies isn’t complemented by an effort to prioritize clean transportation modes on streets. Wouldn’t the most powerful way for a city to divest from fossil fuels simply be to stop using them?

San Francisco’s bicycle coalition organized a protest meant to highlight the city’s lack of commitment to safe walking and biking infrastructure, the urgency of which was underlined the same morning when a cyclist was killed in a crash caused by an illegally parked truck on the same street as the protest.

The coalition called out Mayor London Breed for preaching climate action yet blocking safety improvements. “San Francisco may be hosting, but we have yet to make the commitment to increase space for people walking, biking and taking transit,” its op-ed reads. “We’re embarrassed for our city this week.”

Even though it was a global meeting, the conversations all came back to California, with questions at cocktail hours swirling around whether or not legislation alone will be enough to help the world’s fifth-largest economy achieve its renewable energy goals—let alone its bigger carbon-neutrality goals. It felt like the gauntlet thrown down at the beginning meant the summit was barreling towards some equally game-changing finale—some coordinated, universal effort to unite a world now following in California’s goalpost-moving footsteps.

At the close of the summit, as a climate change-boosted Hurricane Florence churned towards the Carolina coast, Brown made a promise to launch a satellite to collect climate data, something he’d originally proposed during the 1970s when he earned the nickname Governor Moonbeam. While Brown’s intentions for launching the satellite are well-founded—worries that NASA could be defunded under the current administration mean that its climate research would be stifled—plans for the launch are still several years and a presidential election away.

Still, as predicted, it was the satellite that made the headlines, lauded as the “most audacious” announcement of the summit. The symbolism was damning. I envisioned the rocket launch on a picturesque stretch of California coast, with everyone’s attention turned toward the spectacle in the sky, when our leaders really should be focusing on the neighborhood, the street, the sidewalk.